Fickle Fate of Favorite Photo

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

My most ‘acclaimed’ photo is a good example of the somewhat fickle nature of aesthetic opinion. And furthering the fickleness of this photo, I wouldn’t have captured it at all if Elizabeth hadn’t seen the scene first, taking her own version on the balcony of our Tokyo hotel during a colorful sunset evening last June.


My first success with it was a 3rd place win in the Around the Cities round of the Amateur Photographer of the Year competition, a contest run by the popular UK magazine Amateur Photographer which draws over a thousand entries a month. Foreshadowing the uneven path this image would take, the judges were almost apologetic in explaining that it was the best of the pictures that met the theme, so they decided against choosing it for first or second place (click on the above image to read the caption, and figure out for yourself why a shack in the woods and a deserted bridge would place in a contest of this theme).


Belonging to 3 different camera clubs (do not ask), this image ended up in 6 different club competitions. It didn’t win anything 2 of the times. Entered in a theme competition ‘Architecture’, it won an Honorable Mention, meaning it was in the top 25% of entries that night, also qualifying it for the end of the year competition. As shown above, at the end of year competition it was awarded the blue ribbon for digital projected image, and Best In Show.

It had placed 2nd in the other club in a monthly competition for the theme ‘A Different Point of View’ , finally ending up with an Honorable Mention at that club’s end of year competition. I don’t remember now if it was one of the judges who didn’t give it any ribbon, but one of the four monthly competition judges complained that the rectangles in the center of the image were offset, and wasn’t that a shame.  It should be clear at this point that different judges do have different points of view.

Tokyo Balconies on display in Fenton House

Meanwhile, the Royal Photographic Society, which I had joined in the UK and continue to support, is always looking for ways to encourage their non-UK members. It organized an exhibit from the ‘Overseas Chapters’. The US chapter selected my image, making it one of approximately 100 images that spent a month being exhibited at Fenton House, the Royal Photographic Society’s headquarters in Bath. This exhibit is also scheduled to be in London at the Royal Photographic Society Cave from the 11th to 31st of July, so if you are in London this summer, you can see it.

The picture also generated some attention on a photo critique site where I spend some time, called Photosig. Ending up as my second highest scoring image.

Evening Balconies

In one of the club competitions that didn’t go so well, the picture ended up displayed on its side (don’t ask).  I thought it did have some potential in alternative orientation, but the lacy ironwork seemed unbalanced, so I Photoshopped it, copying the top half, pasting and flipping it, positioning it over the bottom half of the photo, and then rotating it 90 degrees.  I actually like the result a lot.  It has a degree of surreality that I think is interesting. And it fixed that judge’s concern about non-symmetric windows. Several other people like it too, and the surreal version of Tokyo Balconies ended up as my 3rd highest scoring image on Photosig, just behind the non-manipulated version.

For those who are following my series on before & after photos, the non-manipulated version of this image is one that spent no time in Photoshop. The original camera RAW image was processed in Lightroom for global exposure, contrast, and color saturation. White Balance was left As Shot..  The color turns out to be a very important aspect of this image. I experimented with black & white, but it just turns out blah. This is essentially what we saw off our hotel balcony at 6:48 PM

ISO 800, f/18, 1/20 sec (there’s a lot to be said for both steady hands and image stabilization)

My Tokyo Hose

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Blue Hose Final Version

There is something irresistibly sinuous about a garden hose, exhibiting a natural elegance as it mimics the French curve. I found my Tokyo Hose last summer in trendy Shibuya.

Blue Hose As Captured By the Camera

Always on the lookout for found still lives, this one struck me as almost perfect as originally presented, and I did not ask my subject to make any changes in her pose.  If I had it to do over again, I think I would have moved the bucket, but that turned out to be one of the easier digital darkroom operations. Taken at 17mm and f;8, ensured enough depth of field for the entire image to be adequately sharp.  Perspective was the first fix, easily corrected in Lightroom (Distortion +7, Vertical –30, Horizontal –7, Rotate –0.9), resulting in a square image that looked like it had been taken directly downwards from an impossible position centered over the hose.  This still left me with the unwanted bucket, and some unsightly reflections from the harsh midday sun, so I moved to Photoshop for some outpatient surgery.


Copying another section of tiles and pasting it over the bucket simplified the image, turning a garden scene into a near-abstract.

The next task was to take care of the unsightly reflections by copying better looking tiles, and pasting them over the ones with the bright reflections. I ended up making 4 patches like this. I created mask layers over 3 of the top 3 tile layers and then brushed black over the mask to blend in the seams.  The hose was the most fiddly part, because it needed to look realistic, but I didn’t have a dark gap to hide a transition.  I also used curve layers, (1, 2, and 3) to correct the exposure and contrast of several of these patches to more closely blend with their neighbors. My final step was to create an empty layer, setting the mode to Overlay, and filling it with neutral gray. This is a quick and easy way to make a Burn & Dodge layer, and it has the advantage of being editable.  Painting on it with a white brush, as I did in the upper left corner, opened up the darker tiles, making them a closer match to the tiles around the hose, and ensuring a symmetric and simple background. 

I’m very happy with the way it turned out. I’m not sure that Japanese hoses are innately more elegant than any other hoses, but to me, this particular bit of blue rubber tube is suggestive, even symbolic, of the Japanese obsession with elegance and form.

Old Shoes

Friday, April 12th, 2013


Old Shoes

The Lonaconing Silk Mill has become something of a photographic mecca for the mid-Atlantic. All of the judges, and camera club regulars, have learned to recognize the increasingly iconic spindles, machines, and shoes that have been cooling their heels in this crumbling site since it was shutdown without warning in 1957.

Paying the owner $75 for the privilege of being able to go wherever we wanted, and move whatever we wanted to,  Elizabeth and I joined a group from the local camera club on a bitter cold January morning several years ago.  I found my favorite scene in a cramped locker room on the top floor.  Golden winter sunlight was streaming in through a grimy window, lighting up the contents of open cubbyholes containing shoes and other personal effects that had been left behind for over a half century.

Old Shoes

I experimented with several different pairs of shoes, but the red shoes, which looked more like some pope’s Italian loafers than a working woman’s practical footwear for the factory, contrasted nicely with the darkened old green locker.  Getting my tripod as close to the far wall as I could, while still being able to see the LCD, I took a bracketed series of exposures.


It took me 8 layers to create an image that approached what I’d seen when I was actually at the mill. Dealing with the cramped quarters and not wanting to block the golden light, I ended up a slightly skewed perspective that I corrected with the Transform tool, ensuring that the bottom border was square with the sides of the photo.  I had first experimented with an HDR image, but just didn’t like the way it came out. However, I did end up superimposing the HDR version on top of the normal version, and selectively unmasked it, providing some additional detail in the shadows at the back of the shoes (see Brighter shoes layer above). This version of the red shoes was missing the top of the open bin, so I copied it from a different picture, pasted it on top, and then used the Transform tool to correct the horizontal perspective, and straighten it so that it would be square with the photo and the other 3 borders.  I used a curves layer to match the exposure to the other 3 borders.

A bright object next to the shoes had to go, I cleaned the chalk marks off of the upper wooden piece, and then I did some local corrections, burning & dodging in an overlay layer, and an adjustment layer masked to the #75 label improved its contrast. After saving the multi-layered composite as a TIFF, I made some global adjustments in Lightroom, dialing some yellow back in to restore that nice golden glow. Using my favorite Velvet Fine Art paper, I made a 17.5 inch wide print, and matted it with Rising white.

Lonaconing Silk Mill Exterior

All Aboard: 20 Layers in Photoshop

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

All Aboard

A few pictures leap right out of the memory card, through your printer, and into the eyes of admiring viewers, looking just like you expected when you took the picture in the first place. Very few.  Most digital images benefit from some time in the digital darkroom, and sometimes it can take several hours of computer work to create a finished image that is worth the price of a sheet of fine art paper.

The intriguingly rusty interior of  Shaker Heights Rapid Transit Car #76, a Pullman-Standard special for that line which served from 1947 to 1975,  motivated me to setup my Canon DSLR on a tripod and spend some time exploring angles and exposures.  For each of several different angles, I took 3 bracketed exposures, recognizing that the tonal range exceeded the capture ability of my camera.  The image below shows the ‘normal’ exposure for that image without any manual attention in Photoshop.

RAW image before postprocessing

My first step was to combine 3 images into a single HDRI image using Photomatix, and then tone map it back into a standard bitmap for editing in Photoshop.  The advantage of HDRI is that it allows you to equalize out the exposure, even on a high contrast scene, such as this shadowy streetcar interior surrounded by the bright sunlight.

High Dynamic Range techniques allow to pull a lot of detail out of the shadow, without blowing out the highlights. It is also an effective way to emphasize texture, so it is well suited to grotty and rusty subjects.  Its also easy to turn a photograph into a cartoon, with distorted and unnaturally vivid colors, and terminally high levels of dirty-looking mid tones.  If I was going to reprocess this image, I think I’d tone down the HDRishness, but printed on Velvet Fine Art paper, I’ve had nice compliments on this image, and it one a first prize at a camera club end of year competition.


The image above shows the multiple layers required to pull these surprisingly complex image together. The black & white rectangle visible to the right in most of the layers is a mask, allowing me to apply the effect to selected parts of the image.  I did a lot of local exposure correction to make the steps visible, to ensure that the seat was well lit, to open up some of the details, and to highlight the incredibly filthy window.  I ended up reconstructing the metal strip along the left side of the image to neatly frame it, and I copied the ‘rd’ from the mid-car door, pasting it here to complete ‘Aboard’.  I also pasted in the window and reflection behind it.  Some of the above layers were tonemapped through Photomatix, and some are from a single exposure. Confronted with different textures, I ended up doing different levels of sharpening to different parts of the picture.

Shaker Rapid #71 & #76

I love all the details in the interior, with the handset on the floor, and some kind of control box lying on top of a driver’s seat with a lot of miles under and over it.  The rust and grime, and decay are evidence of the authenticity of use and time. It did feel like I put a lot of Photoshop work into this image, but in comparison to the amount of time Ansel Adams spent in the darkroom on some prints, a couple hours isn’t so bad.  It’s the price you pay when you enjoy found subjects, instead of studio subjects, where light can be much better controlled.

To Tweak or not to Tweak, that is the digital darkroom question

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

For the past year, I’ve enjoyed membership in the Bracknell Camera Club. The speakers, and competition judges, for that matter, seem to be chosen on the basis of how colorful they are. At least from my POV, growing up in America, some of these crusty old analog dudes are…..unusual.

We had a neurosurgeon speak once. He did beautiful B&W photos of symphony performers, and in his oh-so-received accent he explained that he was actually a very simple man who used the simplest gear possible: a Leica with an F/1 lens. I’m never sure if the English actually are polite or not, but nobody snorted out loud.

A more recent speaker (in calendar terms, not age), was a bit more wired, and he actually used our club digital projector, raving over the potential offered by PowerPoint as a slideshow platform. He animated lines across his photos to demonstrate how in spite of his being a completely intuitive photographer, when you looked at his photos, you had to agree that he was instinctively following well-recognized principles of composition. It would be unfair of me to quote him as having said “One doesn’t tweak.” What he actually said was, and you have to imagine an outdated sort of BBC English that is no longer taught (nor received), “Well, of course I use Photoshop, but just for minor exposure and light balance changes. I do not tweak.”

In terms of either the digital or the analog darkroom, just what constitutes a tweak?

I grew up using an old-fashioned darkroom. Thanks to an extremely talented and dedicated teacher, Judi Coolidge, my high school had a serious journalism program, with one of USA’s consistently rated yearbooks and a weekly, multi-page newspaper. You quickly learn that journalistic photography is about coming up with the goods as requested, on time. When you are sent to cover a story, the editor is planning on using your picture, and if you fail, for either technical or aesthetic reasons, then everybody has a problem.

You try your best to expose correctly, and develop the film properly, but if you screw up, you do what you can to make a usable photo. Once you’ve got a negative in hand, there are a lot of decisions to make with exposure, contrast, dodging, and burning. I actually spent a lot of time reprinting other people’s pictures, and sometimes had to use 5-grade high contrast paper to try and make a decent picture out of muddy underexposed images. Was that tweaking? If so, then long live tweaking.

A few years ago, it was all the rage for artsy photographers to file out their enlarger’s negative carrier so that the edges of the film showed, demonstrating that their photo was framed in-camera exactly as printed. What kind of a strange little contest is that? Books and magazines are generally not publishing pictures using the exact aspect ratio of the cameras which took them, so most published pictures are cropped. Does it truly improve the viewer’s aesthetic experience when they know that the photo wasn’t cropped? For that matter, why should the viewer care how many layers I used in Photoshop?

The only thing that counts is what is on the final print. Certainly it helps to optimize the capture and reduce the need for later manipulation, but ultimately, only the photographer knows.

At the top of this posting is a photo I took last year on a Young Life service project to an orphanage in Bulgaria. It was a harsh place, and the kids in the Tran orphanage had a difficult time of it, but for a week, the kids on our service project managed to connect with them.

This picture to the immediate left is closer to the original, but it still has undergone a lot of processing, and it should be pretty obvious that I removed a large brown splotch on the wall. We had just primed the walls, but no amount of primer was capable of fully covering the filth that had been allowed to collect on this wall. From a journalistic point of view, I would probably have left the splotch in, although I’m not certain of that. I don’t think anyone can doubt that as an aesthetic effort, and one that properly portrays the mood of these two girls, the ‘tweaked’ picture at the top of this post, is superior. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the shadow under the redhead’s chin is darker in the ‘original’ than it is above. More tweaking on my part.

The ‘original’ file created by my camera is in camera RAW format, and it cannot be viewed by a human being without being processed in a way that affects the colors, exposure, and contrast. I used Adobe Lightroom to adjusted white balance, exposure and color as my starting point. Then I used CS3 to clone out the splotch on the wall and lighten the shadows, along with a couple other ‘tweaks’ that you wouldn’t notice.

I do feel that much of the power of this picture lies in its authenticity, and that it would be wrong to make substantial manipulations. The redhead actually does have paint all over her fingernails, having ‘helped’ us do the hallways of the orphanage. The other girl was recovering from eye surgery, paid for by a Christian charity. If she had been paying me for a professional portrait, she might have expected that I would open up her eye and align the pupils of both–I really don’t know. I’m comfortable that what I did to the picture was appropriate, and does not misrepresent the lives or spirits of these teens. I tweaked the picture, and I’m proud to admit it.

Lots of photographers like to brag that they capture the picture in camera, and that their pictures don’t need any additional processing. Well, you can still buy transparency film, and as long as you don’t scan it or print it in a darkroom, then you can claim that you didn’t tweak it. Last I heard, a couple guys in Paris had bought up the last of the small-format Polaroid instant film, but even much SX-70 photography is subject to after the fact ‘tweaking.’

The fact is, you can’t reproduce either a film negative or a digital one without making multiple aesthetic decisions about the output appearance. That holds true for journalism and documentary photography as much as it does for purely abstract photography.

The question of what constitutes representational truth and integrity is a deep one, and I’ll be exploring it, and look forward to discussing it. But it isn’t about tweaking. This is a picture. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

A fake photo on the web? How could that happen?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

It was claimed this month that a picture of an Iranian missile launch was doctored to look more significant. A recent Scientific American article asks Hany Farid (a researcher into digital forensics) how likely that is, and he offers several subtle clues to suggest that this image is not authentic.

Digital Photographs are inherently vulnerable to manipulation. Indeed, manipulation is an integral part of the process of capturing and reproducing an image digitally. Factors that affect the appearance of the final image are set even before a photo is captured, starting with the photographer’s choice of shutter speed, aperture, focal length, position, perspective, timing. etc. All of these are of course relevant to analog photography. Just as different films react to light in different ways, resulting in different images, the camera sensor and associated processing mechanisms output a bitmap that is not identical with the light that fell on the sensor. Before that bitmap can be turned into a visual image, it needs to be further processed, especially if it is a RAW image, which is what most pros and advanced amateurs use.

Although the journalism field has been discussing the issues and problems associated with digital imagery since the 90s, embarrassing photo ‘fakes’ have continued to leak into the major media, which has encouraged the publication of increasingly stringent guidelines. Last year, Reuters shared their Photoshop guidelines on a blog, an interesting example of transparency in the media. In it, photographers are discouraged from doing any manipulation of their photo, including exposure and white balance, and are encouraged to rely on in house experts.

This is an especially sensitive issue with Reuters after a rather obviously manipulated photo caught the attention of the blogging world, and then the mass media (a lengthy and interesting analysis of this and several other faked Reuters pictures from the same period appears on another blog). It is certainly not the case that such incidents are limited to Reuters. A Toledo Blade photographer was let go for pasting a basketball into a game shot, which turned out not to be the first time he had manipulated a picture in a way that was considered inappropriate for the journalistic context.

Photographic integrity comes down to meeting the expectations of the anticipated viewer. If the person who you intend to view your picture knew what you did to it, would they approve? If they saw a before and after, would they consider that you had attempted a deception? Would the deception be for their gain at your loss? Expectations vary widely between media. No reasonable person should expect that the photos in glamor magazines of models look anything like a live human, but in Journalism, even the suggestion of manipulation is unacceptable.

In this month’s case of the faked Iranian missile launch, the New York Times reports that Agence France-Presse picked up the original picture from a political web site, and then it was published on the front page of several American newspapers before France-Presse retracted it. In an age when newspapers are imposing ever-stricter standards on their own people, how responsible is it for a news agency to sell a picture that they copied off the web?

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